India: fire and ashes

They are 700 million-strong, nearly one-sixth of humanity, living in a kaleidoscope of contradictions that stuns their visitors and onlookers.

Their culture is ancient, their nationhood new. Underneath a thin layer of the educated and elite, planning for the 21st century, are millions still waiting a chance to get into the 19th.

They are Indians, citizens of the second most populous nation on earth, who have doubled their numbers in a mere 35 years. They are a people so diverse that almost anything said about them could be contradicted by an opposite equally true.

In their homeland, cow dung and atomic energy coexist as energy sources, and satellites twinkle in the skies above villages that have yet to be wired for light bulbs. Like the multiheaded gods of Hindu lore, India presents many faces. Which one is the real India? They all are.

Not surprisingly, Indians live in and around these contradictions. They are familiar. But they are also cause for concern - for they signal deep divisions between rich and poor. Increasingly, Indians are asking how long they can keep up this two-track society.

One by one, the contrasts come tumbling:

* As the leaders of India's freedom struggle saw it, centuries of foreign domination had kept the people poor. They set out to make India an industrial power, and did. Today the nation ranks among the world's top 10 industrial producers. But it is also the world's 15th-poorest country. Its quality-of-life indicators trail most of the third world's.

* India claims the world's third-largest pool of scientifically and technically trained manpower. But two-thirds of the nation cannot read or write. Half the world's illiterates are Indians.

* Thanks to the green revolution, India now grows enough to feed itself. Yet by the Indian government's own count, 48 percent of the people fall below a poverty line so abjectly low that it is measured in calorie consumption rather than cash.

* Two years ago India sent its home-built satellite into space atop its own launch vehicle. It was the seventh nation to do so. In rural India, where 70 percent of the population lives, only 43 percent of the 576,000 villages have electricity. More than one-third have no clean drinking water.

* A bath is a key daily ritual, and even the meanest slum huts are normally kept spotlessly clean. But public streets, buildings, walls, and open space are another matter, fair game for Indians who toss their trash and use the streets as public toilets. Poor sanitation is a major factor in India's infant mortality rate of 125 per thousand, one of the highest in the world.

* From Mahatma Gandhi on down, Indian leaders have railed against the caste system, which orders Hindu society into rigid strata and relegates 100 million Indians - 15 percent of the population - to the dustbin of untouchability.

Outlawed on paper, under attempted correction in the world's largest affirmative-action program, the practice of untouchability persists. A handful of untouchables occupy prominent roles in public life.

In rural India untouchables cannot use public wells, temples, or restaurants or move above the lowliest, dirtiest occupations. Reports of massacres of entire villages of untouchables are common fare in the Indian press.

To Indians, these contradictions are part of the nation's fabric. To Western visitors, they hit like a ton of bricks.

Arrive in Bombay on an Air India jumbo jet - then drive past miles of squalid slums, seemingly sinking in ponds of black sewage, to a luxury five-star hotel. Walk through the graceful arcades of New Delhi's Connaught Place - but hold your nose in the corners and dodge the emaciated babies thrust by beggars before tourists' eyes.

Sorry, no sightseeing in Old Delhi this July day - Hindus and Muslims are waging their second communal clash of the month.

Admire exquisite handicrafts that reflect the proud traditions and workmanship of centuries; then puzzle at shoddy consumer goods whose eye-popping prices are carefully protected by government controls from quality and price competition by foreign goods.

Thrill to the cool beauty and symmetry of the Taj Mahal, a grieving 17 th-century emperor's monument of love to his cherished dead empress. Then see, if you can take it, a 20th-century monument of love founded and run by the woman Calcutta hails as its ''saint of the gutters.''

To the living skeletons rescued from Calcutta's pavements and brought to her home for destitutes, Mother Teresa's gift of love is a clean cot, nourishing food, nursing care - and for many, a decent place to die. This is the rock bottom of a society that has no floors or safety nets.

Is it a schizophrenic society, this India that proudly joins in the nuclear club, the space race, and the ranks of industrial powers but leaves hundreds of millions of its people underfed and uneducated?

The Indian intelligentsia agonize over the question. In countless articles they dissect the national character, concluding that it is too fatalistic, too passive, too bound up with one's self, family, and caste to worry about others.

Many Indians bristle at the question. We're trying, they say. Besides, why do Westerners make so much of the poverty? See our reactors, our engineering exports, the tractors all over the Punjab wheat fields, the 106 million children who are in school. Besides, the question smacks of cultural imperialism. One can't impose hurry-up Western values and attitudes on a timeless Eastern society.

''Our progress has sharpened our people's impatience,'' said Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. ''It's not true to say that the poor are poorer, because even the poor have advanced a bit. But it is true that they see their poverty with much sharper eyes. It is true that they are not prepared to wait any longer.

''Mrs. Gandhi made that statement more than 10 years ago in a speech in Vienna. In 1982 she was still maintaining to an American correspondent, ''It's not true that the poor are poorer. But what is true is that they see their poverty with much sharper eyes.''

''Sharper eyes'' is an apt phrase for the revolution of rising expectations that experts over the years have predicted would overtake India unless it narrowed its glaring social and economic disparities.

To date, the legendary patience of the Indian masses has defied all such predictions. It is fueled by the majority Hindu religion and its concept of reincarnation: In a cycle of rebirths, one is born into the station in this life that one has earned in the last.

It has also been a mainstay of successive governments and of India's political stability, on which much of South Asia depends.

But increasingly, prominent Indians are questioning how long the urbane, the modern, and the comfortable can coexist with the poor and hungry.

''For the majority of our people, there has been no marked improvement in living standards,'' outgoing President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy declared in a farewell address to the nation in July. In the last 20 years, he said, disparities in income and wealth have been ''accentuated'' - with ''disturbing implications'' for the workings of India's democratic system.

Last year a leading industrialist, J. R. D. Tata, looked ahead to the next generation and asked, ''Will they tolerate continuing to be below the poverty line and continuing to be among the poorest people in the world? How long are we going to depend on the patience and endurance of our people? I think the people of this country will not accept in the next 20 years conditions as they are now.''

Mr. Tata was advocating an intensive family-planning drive to check India's exploding population - a key factor behind the contradictions that mark contemporary India.

India's relentlessly rising population has doubled since independence in 1947 . From 1971 to 1981 it soared 24.75 percent, despite a mandatory sterilization program during two of those years. Experts expect India's population to top 1 billion by the turn of the century.

Indians are living longer now, too: Average life expectancy is 54 years, compared with 32 years in 1951. ''So far we are ahead - we're producing more food than people,'' Mrs. Gandhi says. ''But I don't know how long that can continue.''

For every economic gain that India makes, there are 13 million more Indians a year to claim a share. For every Indian who makes it above the poverty line, many more are born to fill his or her place. Government efforts to raise people out of poverty are ''rather lost in the totality of the population,'' Mrs. Gandhi says.

''Had we been a smaller country,'' the prime minister declares, ''by now there would have been quite a miraculous transformation.''

Next: Cracks appear in foundations of India's democracy

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.